Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden (April 2017)
In Western North Carolina, cinephiles of all stripes regularly gather in film societies to bond over their collective love of the cinema.
Who among us has not been awed by a film? Whether we are touched by the story, or blown away by the cinematography, or swept up in an unforgettable performance, films inspire us. Films allow us to experience things we may never get to do and visit places we may never get to go to. Through film we can explore the limits of our imaginations.
For cinephiles, watching films is the spice of life. But sharing their reactions with fellow film lovers, the type eager for conversation and debate after the credits roll—that’s heaven.
These days we have numerous avenues for film watching. With television networks beginning to produce original content, some films skip the theater altogether to debut on Netflix or Amazon. Many films get lost in the barrage of content.
That’s where film societies make a difference. They curate films and select titles for their audiences. They encourage discussion and debate. They offer a place for people to come together over a love of cinema.
A Room With A View: The Grail Moviehouse
As host to four local film societies, The Grail Moviehouse (on South French Broad Avenue in downtown Asheville) is devoted to providing a screening room for these audiences. In fact, it was part of their initial plan.
Grail co-owners Steve White and Davida Horowitz knew they needed a third screening room to make it possible. “Our first screening room was going to be big films, the second we could experiment with documentaries and independents,” White explains. “The third screen would be classics.”
Before The Grail opened its doors in the spring of 2016, White recalls sitting in their unfinished theater, talking on the phone with Ken Hanke, the face of the Asheville Film Society (AFS).
Hanke was looking for a new home for AFS when their previous location, The Carolina Theater, on Hendersonville Road, changed hands. “Basically, he was interviewing us to see if we knew what we were doing,” Horowitz quips.
There had been technical issues at times at The Carolina, such as aspect ratios not calibrated correctly, or placement of subtitles, and Hanke wanted to avoid those situations in the future. With his immense film knowledge and experience, he could be demanding because he cared so much. “Basically he gave me about ten thousand dollars’ worth of free advice,” White says. Somehow White passed the audition, and Hanke relocated AFS to The Grail. Their first screening was a 1962 Mexican horror film, Brainiac.
“The fact that Ken came to us and decided we were the right fit meant so much to us,” White says. “It was very meaningful to have the confidence of Ken Hanke.”
The Godfather: Ken Hanke & the Asheville Film Society
Hanke began reviewing films for Asheville alternative weekly Mountain Xpress in 2001. A mastermind who could rattle off film facts like an encyclopedia, Hanke was a wry observer and wordsmith, entertaining readers for years with his incisive reviews. He also curated and introduced films for the Asheville Film Society.
On June 28, 2016, he sent his week’s reviews to the editor, as usual. By that evening, the godfather of the local film scene had passed away, at 61.
“Cranky” Hanke, as he was fondly nicknamed, mentored and befriended young movie buffs, some of whom went on to become professional reviewers. If there’s one thing his fans and friends tend to agree on, it’s that Hanke’s talent and immense knowledge could have commanded a much bigger stage.
In 2002 Justin Souther got a job at the Carmike Movie Theater in Asheville, where Hanke was an assistant manager at the time. Hanke struck up conversations with the shy and introverted teen, and began teaching him about film, loaning him DVDs, and screening movies together after hours.
Grumpy. A curmudgeon. Cranky Hanke was known to be prickly. But some saw beyond the cantankerous persona.
“Even at his grumpiest, Ken was always patient with people,” Souther recalls. “He approached movies the same way. Even if he was sure a film would be terrible, he gave it a fair shake. Cinema, he felt, required this of him.”
Years later, Hanke and Souther started up the Asheville Film Society. And in 2006 Hanke invited Souther to join him writing reviews for Mountain Xpress. Souther saw this as the ultimate gesture of respect and trust.
Similarly, Asheville Citizen-Times movie critic Edwin Arnaudin credits Hanke for helping him achieve his current position. Arnaud met Hanke in 2011 when he was an up-and-coming reviewer looking for an “in” to the local movie scene. He emailed Hanke, whom he had never met. Hanke read some of his critiques and decided to help him get into press screenings.
“As time passed, I remained incredulous why a figure of his knowledge and reputation was invested in helping a nobody like me,” Arnaudin says. “My best theory was that when Ken saw someone else loved film and was dedicated to joining the critical ranks, he did what he could to foster that interest.”
Scott Douglas met Hanke not long after he arrived in Asheville from New York, where he had studied film at Columbia University. A native of Waynesville, he was happy to be home and immediately sought out fellow film lovers. At the time, Hanke was hosting the Asheville Film Society at The Carolina. Douglas loved talking film with Hanke, but that’s not what solidified their friendship.
“I drove his wife Shonsa to Tennessee to get a dog,” Douglas quips.
Since Hanke passed on, Douglas has taken over as head movie critic for the Mountain Xpress, with Douglas and Souther writing weekly reviews of the latest films and the film society selections. Douglas also curates the AFS screenings. He attributes his success to the relationship he had with Hanke, explaining, “The Asheville Film Society kept me here, and those contacts got me the jobs I have today.” This year he aims to institute more discussions after the films and up their social media presence.
Douglas can be found at the regular Tuesday night AFS screenings and the Thursday night horror flicks series, introducing films and chatting with members. The AFS screenings have a loyal crowd of regulars, but new people show up all the time. Still, Hanke is irreplaceable and will be missed among the film community for years to come.
“People don’t understand how lucky we were to have Ken,” Douglas says. “He could have been writing in a major market, like a much bigger city. He was that good.”
Souther agrees, noting, “It was during those after-hours screenings—and, years later, when we started the Asheville Film Society—that I gradually figured out what film meant to Ken. For him, movies were communal, something to be shared with friends and strangers alike, and he respected the opportunity he was given to do that.”
Asheville Film Society
The Iron Giant: Mechanical Eye Microcinema
If you’re looking for films that challenge the Hollywood blueprint, you might want to catch the monthly Mechanical Eye Microcinema screenings at The Grail. Featuring experimental films, documentaries, and shorts, this group might spend as long discussing the films as viewing them. Guest filmmakers are often in attendance for question and answer sessions.
Mechanical Eye Microcinema has its headquarters in The Refinery Creator Space building (on Coxe Avenue, also downtown Asheville), which also houses the Arts Council. The first thing you notice walking into the small enclave is a monstrous machine with a massive metal plate suspended in the middle and poles stretching up twelve feet. It effectively dominates the room.
This machine, an Oxberry Animation Stand, weighs a literal ton. Adjacent is an eight-plate Steenbeck flatbed for editing 16mm film. A nearby table is littered with gear: Bolex cameras, lights, and reels. It’s a filmmaker’s dream.
Charlotte Taylor, co-founder of Mechanical Eye Microcinema, is an affable, energetic young woman with a love of everything film. Taylor has focused her immense energy on helping others make films by providing the equipment and the know-how. She is a go-getter who has scoured the Internet to rescue abandoned film equipment from people’s basements.
“I’ve been collecting gear for years,” Taylor admits. Her efforts have paid off well, having garnered donations of the Steenbeck table (which she drove to Pittsburgh for) and a Movieola (a vintage editing device she picked up in Chicago). But the big score was definitely the Oxberry. She drove to the University of Kansas to pick up the donation. She took it a step further and arranged to meet the man who had originally donated it to the university, an animator who gave careful instructions on working it.
Taylor fiddles with two projectors as she talks, rehearsing for her “performance” at tonight’s screening at The Grail. She will be changing film loops on four projectors for this live performance/screening of “expanded cinema,” as she calls it. “She’s a mad genius,” Steve White says. “I’ve never seen somebody so committed to experimental film and supporting others.”
Taylor currently teaches film at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock. She co-founded Mechanical Eye with Lisa Sousa, and they had their first screening in 2012. “We used to show films at the BeBe Theater, coffee shops, libraries,” Taylor says. “The Grail has been a huge supporter and very open to helping us.”
On the third Thursday of every month, Mechanical Eye screens a program at The Grail. Tickets are five dollars, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. Twice a year they hold a screening of community films, each with a ten-minute cap. “Anybody can show anything,” Taylor explains. “It’s like an open mic, but for film.”
Past screenings have run the gamut from student work to films made years ago on VHS. There is an opportunity for conversation after each film. “We hope to get filmmakers to talk with each other and audiences,” Taylor says. “It’s about building community.”
In 2015 Mechanical Eye Microcinema became a nonprofit and soon moved into their new space in the Refinery Building. Taylor now serves as president with a four-person board. They will be offering classes to people of all ages and experience levels, encouraging artistic expression and experimentation, especially for those who may not have access to filmmaking otherwise. “We want to empower people in the community to make and see films,” Taylor explains. “Cinema has power and everyone should have access.”
Memberships are available; prices vary depending on services selected, but all levels include access to equipment and passes to their film program.
Mechanical Eye Microcinema
Close to Home: The JCC’s Israeli Film Series
Rochelle Reich is the Community Life and Events Director for the Asheville Jewish Community Center (JCC). It was a survey of their community that eventually led to the Israeli Film Series at The Grail, which began in September 2016. “I approached Davida and said we’d like to partner with The Grail,” Reich recalls. “They have been amazing. The Grail licenses all the films and provides the space.”
The monthly series intersects Israeli culture by featuring an Israeli director or topic; it could be filmed in Israel or be about the country. “The point is to have a better understanding of Israel through the eyes of their filmmakers,” Reich explains. The series is not limited to any specific genre; they’ve shown documentaries, comedies, and dramas. “These are films you wouldn’t otherwise even know about,” Reich says.
Each film is followed by a discussion, with film curator Barbara Weitz, a retired professor from Florida University who directed their film studies program, frequently leading the discussion. Alternately, they may invite a special guest that fits well with the film. Past discussions include live Skype with directors or video clips of interviews with filmmakers to jumpstart the conversation.
Although they will be skipping their April screening to support the Jewish Film Festival at Asheville’s Fine Arts Theater April 6-27, the May screening will be at 3PM on May 14 at The Grail. Plans are to show The Farewell Party, a funny and compassionate film about a group of seniors at a Jerusalem retirement home who decide to help their terminally ill friend. The June 11 film will be Oriented, and tickets to films in the series are $7.
Israeli Film Series
Is Anybody There? Films & Fees
Speaking of retirement homes, there are a surprising number of films that use a retirement home as a major setting. Perhaps you are too young to remember the 1985 film Cocoon that snagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Don Ameche, as well as for Best Special Effects. It follows a group of retirement home residents who have been sneaking into a neighboring swimming pool, which unbeknownst to them is now owned by aliens and used as a safe place for their pods.
In Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), a disillusioned housewife, played by Kathy Bates, befriends a fascinating nursing home resident (Jessica Tandy). The film won two Oscars. Perhaps less well-known is the indie film Assisted Living (2003). The comedy follows a pot-smoking janitor working at the senior community and won the Grand Jury prize at the Slamdance Film Festival.
It turns out a retirement home is also an interesting—and perhaps fitting—setting for a film society. Not only because they have comfy seats, but by meeting in a library or retirement home, a film society can pay a one-time annual fee to license films. Whereas the same films shown in a movie theater are subject to individual licensing fees. So even with multiple screens, theaters must juggle their movie schedule to accommodate free or low cost film society screenings, and unfortunately at times, that leads to lost revenues.
Basically, unless a film is in the public domain, there are licensing fees required. These can be a flat fee, typically $250-$400, or a percentage of the door. No matter if the screening is for a nonprofit or a film society, such fees apply. And these days, distributors have ways to track down any unlicensed screenings.
What helps is when a film society actively partners with their host. “Special screenings work best when they advertise,” Horowitz admits. Although The Grail markets to their list of over two thousand subscribers, if a film society also advertises its program, this helps get the word out to larger audiences. And when people attend a free program, the purchase of a drink or popcorn goes a long way to support the theater so they can afford to host film societies.
More Coming Attractions
Hendersonville Film Society
The Hendersonville Film Society (HFS) is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1991 and has been showing movies at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community since 1999. Their slogan is “from the Classic to the Contemporary.” Co-founder Elaine Ciampi serves as artistic director, and Board President Chip Kaufmann is on hand to introduce the films.
HFS meets every Sunday at 2PM except for the month of December and certain holidays. Annual memberships are $20. Screenings are open to non-members, with donations appreciated. HFS features foreign and independent films. This group does not have a big social media presence; they snail mail their program to members. Upcoming films are often reviewed in the Mountain Xpress, as well as Bold Life magazine.
Schedules and membership information: 828-697-7310
Footcandle Film Society
The Footcandle Film Society originated in 2007 by co-founders Alan Jackson and Chris Frye. Headquartered in Catawba County, the meetings began in a conference room where film buffs would gather once a month. The screenings led to passionate discussions slipping into the wee hours. After five screenings, and with a growing list of attendees, it was evident they had an audience for their films. Jackson and Frye decided to approach a local theater to host them. On February 21, 2008, Footcandle Film Society (FFS) held their first official public meeting at the Carolina Theater in downtown Hickory. They screened the classic film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Now, the group meets there regularly to watch and discuss classic, art house, foreign, and even locally produced independent films. The film society has, at a minimum, a standard monthly screening on the second week of each month (both Wednesday and Thursday nights), but will occasionally add additional screenings as opportunities arise. Recent screenings have included the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary 13th and this year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. The group boasts over 600 members, with annual memberships at $50 per single, $75 per couple, which include admission to all Footcandle Film Society screenings. On April 20 at 7PM, Footcandle will screen The Founder (2016), starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, a salesman who turned McDonald’s into the fast food behemoth we know today.
Footcandle Film Society
Classic World Cinema
Art and cinema converge at the Classic World Cinema screening every Friday night at 8PM. This film program previously screened at The Phil Mechanics Studio in the River Arts District of Asheville. When the building was sold to a new owner, Classic World Cinema moved into its new space at The Flood Gallery in Swannanoa.
The diverse film program is curated by Carlos Steward and includes more recent flicks, such as the 2014 cult hit Scammerhead, which details the chaotic adventures of Silas Breece, an unorthodox hustler who travels the world seeking capital for outlandish investments that go sour and get him targeted by the mob. Classic World Cinema also screens selections from their annual Twin Rivers Media Festival (see sidebar) throughout the year. The program also screens older foreign art house films, such as Band of Outsiders (1964, France), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, or My Life As A Dog (1985, Sweden), directed by Lasse Hallstrom. The uninitiated film buff will surely get an education in film with this program. Best of all, it’s free.
Classic World Cinema
2160 HWY 70, Swannanoa www.AshevilleCourtyard.com
THE ENVELOPE PLEASE: Film Festivals of Western North Carolina
Film Festival 2017
Cat Fly, recently organized by four Asheville female directors, bills itself as “created by and for local indie film artists to outlet [the] energy inherent to the Southeast region, with a focus on Asheville talent.” By the time you read this it’ll be in full swing, having opened on March 31 with a reception and screening of short films in the River Arts District. April 1 brings a program called “Comedy and Curls,” followed by a special networking/screening evening April 2 at Trade and Lore Coffee.
Asheville Jewish Film Festival
Held annually at The Fine Arts Theater in downtown Asheville, this year’s festival will screen on four consecutive Thursday nights in April, with encore matinees the following Friday. The lineup will begin with Mr. Gaga on April 6, followed by 1945 on April 13, The Last Laugh on April 20, and Wrestling Jerusalem on April 27.
Boone Film Festival
The Boone Film Festival is two years in the running and is currently accepting submissions. The event will take place this September in Boone, dates/venue TBD. The regular deadline for submissions is June 15, with a late deadline of June 30. Helmed by Boone locals hoping to create an opportunity to celebrate the stories of the Appalachian region, there are three loosely defined categories: Appalachian Culture, Appalachian Adventure, and Appalachian Environment.
Footcandle Film Festival
The 2017 Footcandle Film Festival will be held September 22-24 at the Drendel Auditorium on the SALT Block in Hickory. Sponsored by the founders and members of the Footcandle Film Society, they are currently accepting submissions of unique, interesting, and challenging films: Regular submission date is May 22; late submissions must be received by June 19. The festival will include an opening reception, filmmaker talks, and an award ceremony on the final night.
Tryon International Film Festival
Now in its third year, the 2017 Tryon International Film Festival (TIFF) will be held October 27-29; screening venues include the historic Tryon Theatre, Tryon Fine Arts Center, and the newly restored Tryon Depot. (See elsewhere in this issue for our report on Tryon and Polk County.) Presented by the Polk County Film Initiative, the festival aims to attract both A-list filmmakers and regional artists. TIFF is also dedicated to promoting female filmmakers around the globe. The 2017 season introduces a new—in a nod to the wildly popular Tryon International Equestrian Center—equestrian category dedicated to the health, preservation, and well-being of the horse, with the tagline, “It’s all about the horse.” All genres of films, including documentaries, which respectfully highlight the beauty, health, and welfare of the horse, will be considered. TIFF is currently accepting submissions, with a regular deadline of September 13th, 2017.
As a bonus, this year the EQUUS Film Festival, based at the City Cinemas – Village East Cinema in New York City, will join TIFF on their national tour stop schedule. Documentaries, shorts, commercials, music videos, and training and educational films, along with art and literature, are all part of their annual festival. Founder Lisa Diersen and EQUUS’ chief press officer Diana DeRosa will be on hand for all three days of TIFF, and there are scheduled guest speakers during the festival.
The Asheville Film Festival, in partnership with A-B Tech, sets out to find unique, thought-provoking films and to offer a venue where movie lovers can celebrate independent film together. The festival hopes to become a cultural hub for emerging filmmakers to showcase their works. The 2016 lineup included sci-fi, comedy, drama, documentary, student shorts, and even horror. A 2017 date hasn’t been announced yet, but the 2016 event was held in October.
5 Point Adventure Film Festival
The 5 Point Adventure Festival is a traveling film festival set to arrive in Asheville this fall. The program includes over 50 short films, many of which are world premieres, along with panel discussions, community events, guest speakers, parties, and more. Held at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, this unique festival doesn’t limit itself to film screenings. It promises more of an overall arts experience with live performances and elements of surprise.
Banff Mountain Film Festival
The Banff Mountain Film Festival is another traveling festival that screens regionally at the Appalachian State University’s Schaefer Center in Boone, and at Brevard College. It’s a spinoff of Canada’s Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, which takes place each fall in Banff, Alberta; for nine days, festivalgoers explore mountain stories, “from profound journeys and unexpected adventures to groundbreaking expeditions,” with authors, photographers, and filmmakers from around the globe converging on the town. The traveling version is culled from audience favorites. 2017 marks the 21st year that Appalachian State has hosted the world tour; it took place March 24 and 25, while the Brevard event took place the week prior, on March 17-19. Both sold out.
Twin Rivers Multimedia Festival
The 2017 Twin Rivers Multimedia Festival is in its 23rd year. Winning entries were screened at both the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History in Danville, Virginia, (January 27 and 28) and The Flood Gallery in Asheville (February 17 and 18). Winning entries may also be selected to screen subsequently at the year-round Classic World Cinema. This year’s festival included documentaries by two local filmmakers. Kim Best screened Every Egg Has A Story and Aaron Morrell screened Storyprint. Among the feature films screened was Money by Martín Rosete (Spain), which follows two wealthy businessmen about to get away with millions in ill-gotten money, until an uninvited houseguest spoils their plans.
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